Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The large hadron collider will not discover the secrets of creation

Since I am a physicist, sometimes I get asked, "What do you think about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)?"

I consider the argument that the LHC and finding the Higgs boson will give new insights into "creation" and "the beginning of time" is very weak.
On purely scientific grounds, the Higgs boson is relevant to what happened seconds after the Big Bang, not at the beginning.
On philosophical and theological grounds, such scientific knowledge really tells us nothing about our purpose, whether or not God exists or the character of God?

This post was stimulated because a friend brought to my attention an article in the The Australian Higher Education Section, "God and the Holy Grail of Physics" by Jennifer Oriel. The article is somewhat representative of writing about the LHC in the popular press, spurred on by breath-taking press releases from CERN. Here are a few extracts:
SINCE the beginning of history, humans have searched for the beginning of time, asking how we came to be. But at no other point has humanity come so close to finding the keys to creation.

[Scientists at CERN work] in the hope of discovering the secrets of existence contained in the big bang.
There is a missing link, the Higgs boson, a hypothetical elementary particle .... that would give mass to matter. Without it, the big bang is a bit lightweight and the standard scientific explanation for creation falls short. Scientists believe they will prove whether the boson exists by the end of next year.
A new physics, string theory, emerged in the late 20th century that proposed parallel universes, time travel and a swath of theories reminiscent of extreme sci-fi.
Within a year, humanity may have mapped the big bang. We may even unearth other dimensions in space and time, but what created the particles that collided to produce the universe?
First, I am doubtful the LHC will be able to test any significant predictions of string theory. Also, string theory did not propose time travel or parallel universes. [The multiverse was proposed before string theory].

Second, I think it is highly likely that the LHC will detect the Higgs boson. Most physicists will not be surprised. There is so much other indirect evidence for the existence of this particle. The only theory we have that is consistent [the Standard model] with copius amounts of other experimental data requires the Higgs boson to be there. Here is a simple analogy for the layperson.

Suppose you are on the jury for a murder trial. The prosecutor presents evidence against the accused: pictures of the body of the victim, the coroners report, eyewitness testimony that the accused was seen with the victim at the time of the murder, a motive, and the gun. You would probably be willing to pronounce the accused guilty. But, for some people on the jury to be convinced "beyond reasonable doubt" they need to see more evidence, e.g., the fingerprints of the alleged murderer on the gun.

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